I’ve become addicted to Seth Abramson’s blog The Suburban Ecstasies, in part because he always seems to be thinking out loud, not delivering sermons or condescending rants, and thinking out loud requires openness—a quality I value much more than the closed-circuit pronouncements of the Harold Bloom type.
That said, I want to quibble with Seth’s recent post on the in/famous rhetorical pejorative coined by Ron Silliman: “The School of Quietude.” Essentially, Silliman seems to saddle any poet he considers “conservative” with this moniker, and opposes to these poets a wide variety of others whose work strikes him as — what, exactly? Unconservative? Progressive? Avant-garde? (Silliman’s preferred term is “Post-Avant,” which I take to be a placeholder like “Post-Modern”—something to be used until a more adequate term comes along.) In the preface to his anthology of Post-Avant writing, The American Tree, Silliman argues that poetry should reject “simple ego psychology in which the poetic text represents not a person, but a persona, the human as unified object.” His cohort Charles Bernstein has praised Silliman for creating a poetry that does away with “personal subject matter & a flowing syntax.” Of course, every compositional choice a writer makes, from individual words and their spellings to the larger structures of diction, rhythm, and figurative patterns are and can only be “personal,” unless one turns over one’s writing to a machine.
My point is that Seth doesn’t seem to be talking about “The School of Quietude” at all. He’s on to something subtler and far more useful, and I wish he’d jettison Silliman’s ultimately useless term and get serious about his own ideas.
What are those ideas? Well, for me they boil down to these key notions:
1) Most prize-winning poetry in recent years is at best competent, but doesn’t convey a sense of genuine discovery—what Seth calls “surprise.”
2) Good poetry must have “emotional weight” and must deliver it on the page. A writer’s life experience, race, economic status, age, etc.—everything, that is, that takes place off the page—can’t compensate for what isn’t happening on the page.
I’m in total agreement with these ideas, but I have to say they’re … well … not surprising. It was Robert Frost, after all, who said, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” And back in 1983, Donald Hall published an essay called “Poetry and Ambition” in which he coined the term “McPoem” to describe what I think Seth means by a “School of Quietude” poem: a poem lacking in surprise on the page. Hall laid the fault at the doorstep of writing programs—a judgement that seems to be widely shared but which hasn’t hurt the growth and influence of these programs one bit.
I imagine that it’s tough for Seth to share Hall’s point of view, since he (Seth) is enrolled in an MFA program; I graduated from such a program myself, which certainly colors my opinion on the matter as well. But let me suggest that no writing program can ruin a strong writer. Such programs can, however, mislead writers into thinking that competent craft is enough, when what matters more is the openness I mentioned at the beginning of this post: the quality Keats called “negative capability,” which he defined as the capacity “of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” To fact and reason I would add the craft competency that constitutes the core of most writing programs.
This isn’t to say that craft is irrelevant, of course. I’m 50 or so pages into Helen Vendler’s extraordinary new book, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, which makes abundantly clear that craft is absolutely crucial to delivering “emotional weight” on the page. What I’m arguing is that craft must serve and preserve the poem’s impulse as it arises out of the poet’s emotional and intellectual openness. This dialogue between openness and craft is what produces the poem’s final form. (Of course, by “form” I don’t mean traditional form, necessarily; the inventive forms Adrienne Rich uses in her latest collection, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, are as rigorous in their way as the forms Yeats employed.)
Is it possible for writing programs to cultivate openness? Or is openness a spiritual discipline that can’t be taught in such a context? Or is it purely an aspect of the poet’s native talent—a quality that can’t be taught at all?
Good questions, all of which beg the larger social/political question: How is the Established Order served by the failure of poetic ambition? If it weren’t being served, then all the prizes at its command would be directed toward other kinds of poets. On his blog, Bill Knott has repeatedly engaged this question. (I wish he would collate all those posts into one big fat post or add tags to his posts to make them easier to find.) One post in particular notes:
USA politics and USA poetry are the same: it’s a two-party system.
There are no Independents. Or, if there are, they don’t count.
They don’t count in USA politics, and they don’t count in USA poetry.
In politics it’s the Republicans and the Democrats. Period.
Third party, forget it.
Independents, what a farce the polls are where people proclaim themselves as such, because when it comes to what counts, meaning the election, it’s Rep or Dem.
In poetry, it’s the Pinsky Party or the Silliman Party.
Yeah you can pretend to be neither, in other words a fucking moron—because all that means is: you just wasted your vote.
And again, the larger question: How does all this serve the Established Order?